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Some walked away

By William Aiken / May 15, 1985



I have been trying to get my children to cool it, but nothing I can say of a portentous nature has any effect. They don't see the point of putting off the good times. They want to know what's out there for them now. ``This is our world,'' they seem to say, ``not somebody else's. We can phone where we want, and walk down any street. Why be reflective about it?'' And they are probably right in this. Why dwell on portents? They are right to fear what the novelist Henry James feared: to die without having lived. Why let the good moment pass?

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It's at such times, listening to the wondrous clamor of my children, that I begin to grow sick of the low intensities of my daily affairs. It is a warmth, this young way. Why not let it steep through us? Why not join these children in their random radiance and take up a life swept with the glow of hectic?

Yes, why not join the young? As I look around me I come to think that this may be the big question of the future. Already there are playgrounds in Florida for the retired and a cinematic gospel according to George Burns. There are enough fitness clubs and game rooms for everybody. And serious spokesmen are ranged on the side of the glad. At a college graduation last year one of the speakers told the assembled seniors: ``The first principle of life is to have a good time. There is no second principle.'' The speaker was about 60 himself and seemed blithe.

As I sat stunned in my chair I wondered: What if it doesn't ultimately matter what we do? What if mores passed down through centuries no longer obtain? Until recently southern California and Florida were just ideas to me. They weren't real places. But now I begin to question myself. Should I proceed more like a bird, flying south as things grow cold around me?

If it is true that the premises of classical physics -- namely, that events unfold in a linear and consequential way -- don't really apply anymore, and that each act of ours changes the operative variables of the world, are we, too, random events, just like subatomic particles, with ever-changing polarities? Suppose we don't mean anything, and the garbled thought, the quick, refocusing blue eyes are not a sign of youth but a new and exciting way of looking at things, wonderfully suited to a volatile world. Maybe drawing conclusions about our lives or looking in mirrors for the natural man is actually running counter to the genial abyss of quantum reality, and the more we try to get things into perspective, far from learning what manner of men we are, the more we find our images lying shattered in the world.

As I debate such points, around and through me I feel a rising temptation to go quantum with the world. Until now I have lived with an old-fashioned eye to obligation, thinking to leave a little behind me.

But what if, in the new light of things, my ways are just the loose ends of an outmoded rationalism and amount to a purely mythical justification of my actions? What if there really is no choosing between the mirage of 18th-century rationalism and this shimmering of the '80s?

Across the winter marsh I notice a gull getting caught up in a procession of snow geese moving south. Then it pulls itself together and breaks away, peeling off to circle above its old spots. Am I to draw analogies from this?

The science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin has imagined a perfect world that reflects the varying ideals of happiness for each of us. It is a flexible, self-adjusting world arrived at through agreement between reader and writer. It's not the same for everyone -- it's just happy in many different ways. But, she says, the happiness of this individually ideal world continues only on the condition that one nine-year-old child be maintained in a mop-closet in constant misery. The child blubbers and every now and then people make tours to be sure it is still there. People are moved to help the child, but it cannot be helped since that is the condition upon which the entire society remains happy. This is the one constant in the varied modes of bliss. This imagined place of happiness is called Omelas, and the title of the story is ``The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.'' Strange to say, some of the inhabitants did walk away from their perfect happiness. As Le Guin says at the end of her story:

``At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.''

When I am caught between doubts about the present world and sporadic wishes for blissful abandon, I think of this story. It seems to have a bracing effect. If what is going on around me is the breakdown of rationalism and personal accountability, I am willing to take my chances with the losers.

While I recognize the surpassing radiancy of us all and the wondrous new spirit abroad in America today -- and while I hope I am not one of those who have outlived their gaiety -- still I think life obliges me to act on some inward requirement. And perhaps the new popularity of philosophy and religion courses in colleges reflects something of the same kind among maturing young people.

It would be too bad if, as we fling ourselves toward old age and some balmy Salem of the south, we have to look behind us once again to see the adolescents we thought we had finally caught up with walking silently away from Omelas.